Dogs play an essential role in our lives: they are our friends and daily companions. But for those with medical conditions, dogs can do much more. A trained service animal can save your life. Whether it’s by catching a whiff of nuts that could kill a person with a severe airborne allergy, detecting low blood sugar, or even recognizing heart abnormalities that could signal a heart attack, the incredibly sensitive canine sense of smell can work wonders.
Medical alert dogs can warn their owners about impending crisis situations in a variety of illnesses. These include diabetes, heart disease, airborne allergies, asthma, illnesses that cause dizziness or potential loss of consciousness when standing, and many others. And whether or not the animal detects the emergency in advance, they can provide a quick, targeted medical response unique to the individual’s needs.
This article outlines the history and research surrounding medical support dogs, the types of tasks they can perform, the training and certification process involved, and a list of resources for seeking your own medical alert and response dog.
History and Research
In the 1860s, Florence Nightingale found animal companionship beneficial to her patients. Since then, dogs have been used in many capacities to help people recover from and manage illness, disability, and other conditions. Guide animals have been referred to in literature and art throughout history, but training schools for service animals first became popularized in Germany in the wake of World War I. Soon after, other countries such as Switzerland, Great Britain, and the United States followed suit. Many of the service dogs who came out of these training programs were paired with veterans, particularly after World War II when rising demand led to many more training schools being opened around the country.
Decades of research support the use of service dogs in assisting individuals with physical disabilities. In recent decades, they have become popular companions for people with less visible ailments, such as mental illness, developmental disorders, and chronic pain. Any dog can boost key neurotransmitters like dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin, all of which are “essential to our sense of well-being.”
Trained service animals are able to go much further with the aid they provide. Extensive research shows how effective they can be in helping people with disabilities achieve greater independence, require less assistance from other people, and improve functioning in many areas–including physical, emotional, social, and economic.
Because the claims made around dogs’ abilities can be all but unbelievable, scientists are constantly working to expand their research into new frontiers. For instance, some people claim that dogs can detect strokes, or even diagnose cancer.
Catherine Reeve, an experimental psychology PhD student, launched a study on diabetic alert dogs. She wants to know how they detect low blood sugar: “That, along with cancer detection dogs and medical detection in general, is just now becoming a field of research. It’s very promising and that’s why it’s very interesting,” Reeve says. “There have been very few studies done with cancer detection and dogs, but the ones that are out there, the dogs are extremely accurate and it’s extremely impressive. Now it’s kind of like, wow—what else can they do?”
While skepticism abounds, scientists can’t ignore the thousands of unique stories that owners relate. The key is trying to understand the precise mechanisms by which animals are able to perform these amazing medical feats. That way, trainers will have a much clearer set of guidelines for producing reliable results with standardized training methods.
Training and Certification for Medical Alert and Response Dogs
The Foundation for Service Dog Support defines a service dog as “a dog that has been trained to perform tasks to assist an individual with disabilities. It is the ability to perform observable tasks, on command, that distinguishes a service dog from an emotional support dog, therapy dog or other working dogs. Some examples of tasks are balance and support, retrieving dropped objects, fetching medications and summoning assistance when needed.”
Service dogs are full-time companions protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Unlike emotional support dogs or therapy animals, they undergo rigorous training so that they can assist with everyday tasks. Training for a service dog is often in the range of $10,000-$20,000 and can take up to two years. Over this period of time, dogs are taught to be extremely responsive to their owners, to ignore any and all distractions, and to perform specific tasks that will help them to assist their human partner’s specific needs.
Medical alert dogs receive specialized training based on the specific condition that is targeted. Owners should not rely on their untrained pet to warn them about a heart attack–or imagine that a cancer-sniffing pup can be of use to a diabetic. Trainers rely on a complex process of trial-and-error, and many dogs are simply not suited to the job. Whether this is because their senses of smell are not as keen or they aren’t responsive enough for other reasons, they will be removed from training programs if they do not demonstrate progress.
When most service dogs are trained, trainers and owners develop the expectation that the dog will consistently provide the needed response, no matter the circumstance. That is the case with many of the tasks medical support dogs are trained in. However, training dogs to detect medical conditions is nowhere near an exact science. While there are many hypotheses about how dogs detect health crises, conclusive research is limited to certain conditions. Even a well-trained dog may not catch every catastrophic event in advance. Therefore, medical alert dogs should not be relied on wholesale. Every preventative measure available to a patient should be taken, and medical alert dogs can provide an additional measure of safety.
Whether or not a dog is able to sniff out a medical threat in advance, they are trained to respond quickly when they occur. Service dogs can carry out many complex tasks, some of which are enormously beneficial in the immediate aftermath of a heart attack, allergic reaction, or narcoleptic fall. They can use body pressure to alleviate a problem, call for help, aid the person’s balance so they do not fall, and more.
Dogs 4 Diabetics, an organization that provides medical alert and response dogs, has strict standards of quality in order to certify its trained dogs. Among other things, they “assure that the dog is sufficiently mature, socialized, and skilled in basic obedience to be properly accessed in public environments with the client” and “assure that the dog is trained to recognize the unique scent of hypoglycemia to trigger the appropriate alert behavior.”
The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners requires a minimum of 120 hours of training along with a specific list of tasks and requirements. However, people with disabilities have the right to personally train their service dogs, and do not have to go through outside organizations for the training process. There are many sources of information if you wish to train your own animal, although not all animals have the capacity to alert for medical conditions.
Service dogs are guaranteed right of entry into public establishments, like restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, medical offices, hotels, and other places of public accommodation–and none of these establishments are permitted to require certification or paperwork to prove a service dog’s legitimacy or status. However, a disruptive or threatening dog may be asked to leave the premises of a business, so it is paramount to provide ongoing training or to seek help if a service dog causes issues in public.
Your service animal becomes a part of your family, much like a pet. However, service animals are not pets; a “no pets” sign on a business cannot legally be applied to your service animal.
Resources for Finding a Care Dog
There are many resources for finding a companion service dog. Additionally, there are many resources to assist those who would like to get a certification for their pet to become a licensed service dog. The following list provides useful information on some of the organizations that can help you in your search. For more information on what is available to you locally, you are encouraged to reach out to your local ASPCA or Humane Society chapter. Local trainers and care providers may be willing to work with you to help subsidize the acquisition of a service animal.
Allergen Detection Service Dogs trains service animals to assist those with severe allergies.
Assistance Dogs International is a coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations that helps individuals find a dog to match his or her needs.
Dogs 4 Diabetics trains and places Medical Assistance Diabetic Alert Dogs.
Pawsitivity is a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing dogs and training them as service dogs.
Please Don’t Pet Me provides information about all kinds of service animals, including medical alert dogs.
Service Dogs for America is a non-profit organization that enhances and empowers the lives of individuals with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.
Find a list of resources about assistance dogs from the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. Assistance Dogs International offers a program search to help people around the world find service dog organizations they can work with.